At the French Open, Forehands in the Flora

At the French Open, Forehands in the Flora

PARIS — France’s four tennis musketeers played the game in some unconventional places, including the decks of cruise ships as they crossed the Atlantic or the Pacific to compete in international matches.

But the great players, whose long-ago brilliance created the need for Roland Garros Stadium to be built in 1928, never played in a semi-sunken court surrounded by greenhouses.

Their successors will get that chance beginning on Sunday, when the French Open’s latest and most iconoclastic show court opens for business.

“It gives us more room, but it also gives us something unique,” said Gilles Jourdan, the manager of the stadium modernization project.

Paris’s leaders and Roland Garros’s affluent neighbors long resisted the building of this court in the serene Serres d’Auteuil botanical gardens adjacent to the tournament site.

Even after Mayor Anne Hidalgo gave approval for the court, French ecological groups waged a legal fight that delayed its construction for several years.

“When you put your foot in a garden in the middle of Paris, you have a lot of people against you,” Marc Mimram, the new court’s architect, recently told French reporters.

But the so-called greenhouse court, officially named for the former French women’s singles champion Simonne Mathieu, is finished now. That is quite a contrast with other parts of Roland Garros, including the main Philippe Chatrier court, which was almost entirely demolished and rebuilt in the last year to prepare for the installation of a roof in time for the 2020 tournament.

The organizers’ hope is that the public and players will barely notice the project is not yet complete after a final push to clean up the debris and cover up the bare spots.

“The British and the Anglo-Saxons have a good expression,” Jourdan said earlier this month as he walked underneath dangling cables and unfinished ceilings. “They say they are like ducks, where above the water they look calm and collected and below the surface they are paddling like mad but nobody notices the paddling. That’s the idea for us this year.”

It has indeed been a race against the clock, not unlike the sprint to finish when Roland Garros was first built in 1928. France’s first Davis Cup victory in 1927 over Bill Tilden and the United States in Philadelphia was the biggest story in French sports. The French players known as the musketeers — René Lacoste, Henri Cochet, Jean Borotra and Jacques Brugnon — required a suitably grand venue to host the Davis Cup in France for the first time in 1928.

Roland Garros was finished just in time. “There are definitely some parallels,” Jourdan said.

The complex has grown steadily since then: Court No. 1, widely known as the bullring, was completed in 1980, and the Suzanne Lenglen Court, the second largest court, in 1994. But the current renovation and expansion is the most significant since the site was opened.

The goal is not only to provide a roof and guarantee some play in case of rain, but also to provide more elbow room for spectators.

Roland Garros’s crowded allées can resemble a subway platform at rush hour. Placing the tournament’s third biggest show court in the botanical gardens is designed in part to spread out the crowd: it will now be nearly a kilometer walk from one end of the grounds to the other.

Court No. 1 will be destroyed after this year’s tournament to make room for a large lawn for spectators, which will also give them a place to wait between the day and the night sessions that are scheduled to begin in 2021.

There is not much left to remind anyone of 1928. A rare exception is the playing surface inside the Chatrier Court.

“It’s the same soil that was there at the beginning; we’ve dug nothing below,” Jourdan said as he looked down at the red rectangle. “The sweat of Monsieur Lacoste is still there underneath.”

But the stadium surrounding that rectangle has been transformed: both widened and lightened, with folding seats made of pale chestnut wood replacing green plastic ones and with curves in the upper decks replacing the sharp angles.

During a visit to the grounds on May 10, while construction workers banged and bustled away inside and outside the Chatrier Court, the Simonne-Mathieu Court was a red-clay oasis of tranquillity


Modern-day tennis started out as a garden-party diversion in the 19th century, and there are courts in many a leafy spot, including Central Park in New York, the Luxembourg Gardens on the other side of Paris and the All England Club that hosts Wimbledon.

But there has never been a stroll quite like this in professional tennis. Go down a cobblestone passageway between elegant buhrstone buildings built in 1898, and you arrive at a court surrounded by four connected greenhouses, each of which contains plants from a different continent.

“Africa to the south, Asia to the east, Oceania to the north and the Americas greenhouse to the west,” said Paul Guillou, the garden’s director.

With tennis being a global game, the idea was to create a botanical world tour around the court, and approximately 500 different species have been planted. The greenhouses also are filled with ornamental elements like pedestrian stone bridges and miniature waterfalls.

Spectators will not be allowed inside the greenhouses during the tournament to preserve the flora. But their contents are plainly visible through the glass en route to the stands, and they will be open to the public for free the rest of the year.

It is quite a setting, quite a concept, even if you will hardly feel like you are watching tennis in a rain forest after play begins. Once inside the stadium, the greenhouses are barely visible from most of the seats, largely obstructed by the upper sections of the stands with their rows of wooden benches.

From that vantage point, with the players sliding and the groundstrokes flying, the Mathieu Court feels like a conventional court, which is something of a letdown.

Spectators and the general public will have access during the tournament to the historic sections of the Serres d’Auteuil, including the soaring 19th century greenhouses that are classified as national monuments.

French Open tournament director Guy Forget said the decision on which match will inaugurate the court on Sunday will be made the week before the tournament begins. He said it was likely to feature a Frenchwoman, a nod to Mathieu, who won the women’s singles title at Roland Garros in 1938 and 1939 after losing in six finals. She later took part in the French resistance against German occupation.

“I’m happy that her name will resonate every year to remind everyone that victory belongs to those who never give up,” said Bernard Giudicelli, the president of the French Tennis Federation.

That seems an apt metaphor for her court, which would not exist without the persistence of the federation, which funded the project and now has the extra space and extra showplace it felt it needed to keep pace with the other three Grand Slam tournaments.

“We’ve been through so much hassle from the neighbors and all the people that have tried to stop this project,” Forget said. “And finally it’s there.”

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